The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
“The non-white roles in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are about as lazy as you can get, if not a bit regressive.”
Title: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creator: Amy Sherman-Palladino 👩🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Amy Sherman-Palladino 👩🏼🇺🇸 (5 eps), Daniel Palladino 👨🏼🇺🇸 (3 eps), and Sheila R. Lawrence 👩🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
At its best, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel features the banter-driven friendships and tough love mentorships I loved so much about Amy Sherman-Palladino’s previous series, Bunheads. (May it rest in peace.) But like its other predecessor, Gilmore Girls, the ever-lurking sense of “isn’t it funny how rich we are?” infuses the universe of Mrs. Maisel and continues to miss the mark for me in its glibness, as characters order servants around and swan around opulent homes without batting an eyelash. Still, Mrs. Maisel is engrossing and zippy. It’s easy to see why the show has snagged a 2018 Golden Globe nomination for ‘Best TV Series — Musical or Comedy.’
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Women center this show, starting at the top—showrunner Sherman-Palladino herself—and filtering down through the pyramid of Mrs. Maisel’s dizzying cast. Major screen time is given to the titular heroine Miriam “Midge” Maisel, played with vim and vigor by Rachel Brosnahan, and to her new manager, the grumpy, androgynous Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein).
Supporting women such as Miriam’s mother, her best friend, her coworkers, or her husband’s mistress, all help to ensure that ladies show up en masse. They exhibit a variety of ages and personalities, from the ultra-conservative parents to the anti-establishment denizens of the Village, where Miriam goes to do her stand-up routines. And while diversity in income levels or ethnicities is surely lacking, the women of Mrs. Maisel show up in brute force, garnering this show an easy pass in Gender.
The non-white appearances in Mrs. Maisel are about as lazy as you can get, if not a bit regressive. Of the 37 recurring roles (counting those in at least two episodes), just one is non-white. This is against a backdrop of Manhattan, where black Americans alone made up almost a quarter of the 1960 population.
The sole recurring character of color is Harriet, played by Wakeema Hollis, a coworker of Miriam’s at B. Altman—a glamorous department store that closed its real-life doors in 1989.
Harriet’s characterization revolves around her skin color. She is literally introduced on Miriam’s first day of work in Season 1, Episode 5, as “another compadre, Harriet Owens. She serves our dark complexion clientele.” The scene continues:
Coworker 1: Harriet’s a model.
Miriam: Neat. Runway?
Harriet: Not with this skin.
Coworker 2: She’s been in Ebony Magazine a million times, looking like Lena Horne.
Harriet: Eight times, and looking to expand.
I appreciate that the script highlights Harriet’s annoyance at being pigeonholed by her coworker. But unfortunately, this is as positive as racial commentary gets on Mrs. Maisel. We quickly see how the writers fumble any material that involves non-white characters; later in the episode, Miriam is shown tanking her first sober attempt at stand-up. She grasps for laughs with eye-wincingly bad lines:
Miriam: And then there’s Harriet. She’s our Negro clerk. And beautiful—god, this woman's beautiful. She’s—she’s Lena Horne, she helps our Negro customers.
Unamused black audience member: Because she’s a Negro.
Unamused black audience member: Harriet's a Negro. Where is this going?
While it’s true this scene is used as an example of Miriam making a huge faux pas, the fact remains that black characters exist solely to serve white narratives. Harriet disappears for much of the remaining series, while other one-off black roles such as jazz musicians are used as props to make the Village seem “edgy” and to lend street cred to the white comedians who chat with them between sets.
In Season 1, Episode 4, Miriam stumbles upon a protest in Washington Square Park. When the rally leader invites anyone up to the mic, this tone-deaf scene ensues, as described by Arianna Romero of Refinery 29:
“Although Midge admittedly knows nothing about the issues at hand, [the speaker] picks our heroine out of the crowd to share her story…Meanwhile, a black woman, who’s actually politically involved and passionate about the issue, looks on, applauding rich, privileged Midge.”
You may ask: What could be done differently? This is a pre-Civil Rights era storyline, isn’t it? Well, we can look to another Amazon original, Good Girls Revolt, for pointers. Like Mrs. Maisel, Good Girls Revolt tells the story of white women (and their sole black coworker) who try to break into a male-dominated industry. But the latter manages to present the perspective of black New Yorkers in a way that may be simplistic but is much less tokenistic, while Mrs. Maisel doesn’t appear to make any effort at all.
The first season of Mrs. Maisel reveals no LGBTQ characters. However, there are significant cues that Susie, who is a major character, is either bisexual or a lesbian. This is all coded through her clothing, which would be construed as menswear in the gender-obsessed 1950s, verbal implications (e.g. when Miriam's husband compliments Susie on her blouse, she retorts, "You're barking up the wrong tree"), as well as some lingering looks at Miriam when she’s dressed to the nines.
As the show has already been signed on for another season, Sherman-Palladino has ample opportunity to turn subtext into canon. Season 1 just barely scratches the surface of Susie’s complex character and I hope her backstory, along with any romances within it, are fleshed out soon.
Bonus for Religion: +0.25
In a departure from Sherman-Palladino’s WASPier works, Mrs. Maisel centers on Jewish culture, something the showrunner has a working familiarity with, as she professes herself “raised as Jewish. Sort of.” Her latest show discusses interfaith marriages, regularly intersperses Hebrew words, and structures episodes around Jewish traditions such as Yom Kippur or temple—all things I enjoyed watching and laughing along with. But from the outside, looking in, I wasn’t sure if the heavy cultural overtones were celebratory (good) or stereotypical (bad). After a bit of reading, what I can gather is that Mrs. Maisel toes the line but is generally seen as a welcome addition to the broader TV landscape, imperfect as it is.
For example, Sascha Cohen sighs on American Jewish publication The Forward that “many of the lines are cutesy and staged, delivered with a sing-song cadence and exaggerated inflection that almost approaches Fiddler On The Roof territory.” But Cohen does go on to say that “beneath the shtick, Mrs. Maisel grapples with the question of how New York City Jews fit into the broader American culture.”
Alessio Franko of Jewish Currents points out a broader issue with the show—its classism. “While Midge’s wealthy background does not invalidate her struggles as a Jewish woman,” he says, “the writing uncritically prioritizes an upper-class perspective...we have to ask ourselves whether we really need a high-profile Jewish story that can’t grapple with class.”
And our own contributor, Dana of The Telefeminism Project, shares her feelings on a missed opportunity. “My mom and her brothers [who are Jewish] grew up in Jamaica, Queens and I’ve heard so many stories that would make for much deeper comedy and complicated characters.” She adds, “I’m bothered that Mrs. Maisel relies so heavily on stereotypes for humor but casts a lead actor who is not Jewish and doesn’t fit the aesthetic stereotype, conforming instead to an anti-Semitic ideal of beauty.”
Overall, there are definitely hiccups but the visibility seems to be better than outright avoidance, even as we may hope to see a wider variety of Jewish characters in the future, with more of them played by actual Jewish actors. Particularly, we would benefit from seeing portrayals that deviate from the moneyed American Jews already seen in the likes of Grace and Frankie, Transparent, or Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 3.00/5
Mrs. Maisel is a fun, breathtakingly fast-paced addition to Amazon’s original lineup and I’m happy to see it getting the buzz it deserves. The show nails it on gender equality but Sherman-Palladino appears to have no interest in the lives of lower income, non-white, or LGBTQ protagonists.
This shouldn’t stop you from watching Mrs. Maisel, though. The writing may not be inclusive but it’s mostly inoffensive. Better yet, it’s entertaining as hell, and I look forward to seeing how Sherman-Palladino will deepen these flippant characters in Season 2.